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England Needs More Security in Our Housing Market, Not Less - The Government Should Re-think Its Approach to Council Tenancies

26/01/2016 11:31 | Updated 26 January 2016
  • Campbell Robb Chief executive of Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity

Shelter is 50 years old this year. If 'big' birthdays are prone to make you reflective, then this one is no exception. In our half century we've been well placed to see first-hand the major changes - good and bad - not only in housing and homelessness over the years, but in the very fabric of British society.

Thousands of people contact us every week, and the most consistent thread that quietly binds every one of them together - no matter their income or their aspirations - is the desire for security.

At its core it's a simple human desire. It's the peace of mind of knowing that you are free to put down roots in a community; to start a family and send your children to the local school, to get to know the neighbours, without fear of being uprooted and forced to start all over again.

This a precious, indefinable quality, but it's what turns a house into a home.

Sadly there's too little of this in our current housing market. For the most part, homeowners enjoy it, but most private renters do not. They are knocked about from pillar to post by the churn in a market that was never designed for families. They face a stressful world of short term lets, sky-high rents and rip off agent fees that, no sooner have they navigated, they are spat out to face it all over again.

This is no place to raise a child or save up for a deposit on a home of your own. Our society needs less of this kind of insecurity, not more.

And it's this fundamental reason why the government simply must abandon its proposals to end security of tenure for new council tenants.

At the moment if you can get access a council property, you are given a secure tenancy. Tenants can still move, and councils can also offer shorter lets if they want. But the starting assumption is that, if you play by the rules, you will be allowed to stay in your home.

A policy introduced by Mrs Thatcher, it now faces being undone. The government is proposing that most new council tenants should instead have tenancies of only two years, or at most five.

The risk is they will be evicted and sent back into the private rented sector. At present, these secure tenancies are one of the few sources of security open to people on low incomes. In addition, the lower rents help many tenants save up to buy a home of their own (either through Right to Buy or a separate place). Under this change, all this will be denied to them.

With outright home ownership increasingly out of reach for people on low incomes, and government resources diverted towards ownership schemes that only work for people on middle incomes, insecure private renting will be where generations of people on typical incomes live their entire life.

Ministers will roll out the same reasons: waiting lists are long so shorter council tenancies will more regularly free up homes for those on lists. But this is ultimately a false prospectus. It's providing more security for some on the backs of more insecurity for others. Ultimately, it's the sound of deck chairs being moved around. The only answer is to build significantly more genuinely affordable homes to rent so all of these people's aspirations can be met - there is no short cut.

We should be seeking to make private renting more like social renting not the other way around.

Inherent within this change is a shrivelled view of the potential of low-rent affordable homes. It views council housing as a hand out, rather than a hand up: an ambulance service only for the neediest for a limited period of time. But council housing has far greater potential than that. Properly designed and delivered, it can provide huge swathes of workers with security, opportunity and a route to ownership that they will simply never obtain through the market.

Of course, we must learn from the past. The last generation of mass council house building included some ugly monolithic estates that did not meet people's aspirations, as well as some better designs. The next generation of low-rent homes need to look like any home you'd see on an ordinary street, and work for the same people who live on those streets.

But it must have affordability and that basic, universal value of security at its heart to meet people's needs and aspirations. No good can come from the government's proposed change, and we hope they will think again.

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